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Adelphia Sues Pirate for $420M

Adelphia Communications Corp. will try to wring $420 million in damages from the man it believes to be the center of a piracy ring in upstate New York.

Noel St. Cyr of Lockport, N.Y., pleaded guilty in state criminal court March 12 to charges that he modified or sold set-top cable converters, according to federal court documents. Following that conviction, Adelphia filed a civil suit against St. Cyr on March 23 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.

St. Cyr was one of nine individuals arrested on piracy-related charges last October, said Thomas Haywood, Adelphia's vice president of operations in Buffalo. Based on information from Adelphia and direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV Inc., the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations conducted a six-month probe into St. Cyr's activities, including the distribution of boxes to others for resale.

Adelphia, in turn, had received information on the case from the records of a set-top distributor who was the subject of a 1991 probe by federal authorities in California.

Seven of the men arrested in the raids in Niagara and Erie counties were charged with cable and satellite theft; two were charged with possession of forged documents.

Adelphia believes the ring operated solely in the two-county area, according to Haywood.

St. Cyr was not listed in the Lockport, N.Y., telephone directory and could not be located for comment.

In the civil suit, Adelphia contends it can document the sale of at least 2,000 set-tops doctored to enable the free reception of all basic, premium and pay-per-view channels. An audit of St. Cyr's records is underway.

Authorities hope to locate his proceeds, document further sales and identify his customers, who may be subject to prosecution for theft.

The MSO based the high restitution figures on a demand of $100,000 for each box sold, $100,000 in damages related to the plaintiff's economic enhancement from each sale and $10,000 for each additional box found, according to Haywood. Those levies would be in addition to attorney's fees.

In prior suits, however, judges have failed to adopt such a multiplying formula. In a high-profile national piracy suit brought by General Instrument Corp. (now a unit of Motorola Inc.), judges interpreted Section 605 of the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act to mean that the maximum penalty is a $50,000 fine per prosecution, plus two years in jail.

That interpretation lowers the financial penalty to an "acceptable cost of doing business" and is not the deterrent Congress intended, cable-industry attorneys have argued.

But cable has been successful in demanding injunctions that prevent a prosecuted thief from re-entering any business related to cable set-tops and their distribution. Adelphia is seeking such relief in this case.